Sunday Salon : A Ulysses Marathon

The Sunday

The stroke of noon

My first ever Sunday Salon. I am filled with delight.

Sadly, because I teach tomorrow (and it is a particularly busy moment in the syllabus) there will not be very much time for the three pleasure-reading books I have underway: The Ecstasy of Rita Joe (a Canadian play), Arlington Park (a LibraryThing Early Reviewers book about women's lives in the suburbs of London), and To Hate Like This is To Be Happy Forever (a reflection on the Duke-Carolina basketball rivalry in which I am so deeply entangled). In reference to the last of these, which is the book I am farthest along with, those of you have been following my blog know that I have been so deep in March Madness that I eat, sleep, and drink college basketball. Well, last night that was taken to a new level, when I actually dreamed that Tyler Hansbrough (our star player at UNC) came to live in my house, and was a perfectly lovely guest, although he did have some strange dietary requests.

My other preoccupation of late (I believe I have spoken of both it and Tar Heel basketball as being labyrinthine obsessions, in their capacity to absorb my attention) has been my reading of Ulysses, which I am teaching to a wonderful group of students who are having, well, intense and diverse emotional reactions to it. Last class was the first in which literary discussion actually reached the level of yelling, and I loved it. So today will be a marathon of Ulysses reading and paper grading. I will keep you updated as I go.

9 p.m.

Slow but steady progress in Ulysses. My favorite (obscure) line so far is one in which the young hero, Stephen Dedalus is being mocked by the imagined voices (inside his own stream-of-consciousness monologue) of family members who are filled with derision for his attempts at saintliness. This is the exchange he has with his internalized taunters:

Reading two pages apiece of seven books every night, eh? I was young. You bowed to yourself in the mirror, stepping forward to applause earnestly, striking face. Hurray for the Goddamned idiot! Hray! No-one saw: tell no-one. Books you were going to write with letters for titles. Have you read his F? O yes, but I prefer Q. (34)
Frankly, reading 7 books simultaneously at a rate of two pages a day sounds like EXACTLY the sort of project I would undertake.

Joyce's sense of language and character is remarkable for how palimpsestic it is: you can see through the layers of connotation and allusion to all the other layers, and the relationships between them create a continuously shifting body of meaning. Whole sections of the book shift perceptibly, like a hologram, as you read them from different symbolic or formal viewpoints.

We had a fascinating argument in class last week about translation, as students insisted that Ulysses, in all its linguistic richness or chaos (depending on your opinion of it), was untranslatable. How does this differ from other authors, I asked, like Shakespeare or Cervantes? Shakespeare, they reluctantly admitted, might also be easy to lose in translation, but Cervantes's language just didn't have the requisite linguistic complexity. You don't think, I followed up, that we feel that way because we just read Cervantes in translation (albeit a very good one), rather than in the original Spanish? They looked skeptical. Except, perhaps, my bilingual students, who had been reading Don Quixote in the original.

Now, I would never argue that the language of translation is lacking in richness or nuance, but I think the way we approach a translation's language is quite different. We are reluctant to do close readings, because the language has been divorced, in our minds, from the "intention of the author." Unless we view the translation as either miraculously accurate and trustworthy or an autonomous work of art in its own right this is a hard analytical hurdle to jump.

Ok - I must return to paper grading and Ulysses-reading. But first, a note on my reading goals for the next week. I would love to finish off both The Ecstasy of Rita Joe and To Hate Like This is To Be Happy Forever (something has got to tide me over, basketballwise, until next weekend's Final Four game. Go Tar Heels!), and to make significant progress with Ulysses (she says virtuously) and Arlington Park. The next thing I will embark upon will probably be The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid, which, if I remember correctly, was on last year's Booker short list, and which has gained a newly urgent reading status when it was recalled from me by the library. Happy reading, everyone!

[To participate in The Sunday Salon, follow this link.]

The perils of art, superbooks, and my Stephen Curry crush

I am deep in the dual labyrinths of teaching Ulysses and watching March Madness, and I have to admit that I am finding these to be two of the most narratively rich experiences I have had in some time. I have also developed a bit of a team crush on Davidson, another North Carolinian team who are in the midst of a Cinderella surge in the NCAA tournament thanks to their star player, the delightfully childlike Stephen Curry, who has made three 3-pointers in a row since I began typing this post a couple of minutes ago. What a charmer he is.

And of course, this is only compounded by the fact that Davidson was responsible for sending Georgetown home in the last round. Georgetown has been my back-up nemesis (understudy to Duke, of course) since they sent us home ignominiously, soul-shatteringly in last year's Elite Eight round. Now that both Duke and Georgetown have been knocked out of the tourney, I feel dreadfully lost. How am I to get at any sense of self-definition without a nemesis? I am utterly unmoored without my ire.


Art can be a perilous craft, and not merely because of the famous fickleness of the muse. The inspired leader of an Uzbek theatre company (which is contrarian and avant-garde to the point of dissidence) was assassinated outside of his home late last year, but his colleagues are still stoically touring. Their work sounds quite fascinating.

Meanwhile, a Russian artist named Anna Mikhalchuk, who had been persecuted for art her opponents called "blasphemous," has disappeared from her Berlin home. Very worrisome.


I can understand the appeal of the book-as-art-object or of a really stunningly crafted tome, but is there any bibliotrend tackier than the "superbook"? I have two separate reactions of revulsion: On the one hand, consider how many books (new, shiny, author-supporting volumes or used tomes rich in history) you could buy with the $2000-$15,000 one of these superbooks costs. On the other, it is utterly alien to my experience of reading to think of owning a book that is always kept under a "crystalline tower case." Surely the point of a really beautifully made folio is that it enhances all the sensory pleasures of reading a book? Still, if there were a spare Shakespeare quarto looking for a good home, I might consider taking it in and keeping it in a crystalline tower.


Tom Stoppard's politics have always been a source of unease for lefties like me who love his work. Still, much of what he says, in his art and in his own persona, seems more classically, idealistic liberal than truly reactionary. Maybe this is what really makes readers like me uncomfortable: our own unease with the possibility that we might fall under the much maligned rubric of liberalism when we really wish we were radicals. In this article on the 1968 protests and riots, Stoppard's distaste is startling but ultimately commonsensical. I love this anecdote:

In 2005 I interviewed a film-maker in Belarus who had been beaten up by state security for the usual reasons and he said a few things which were remarkably like a speech I had just written for a Czech Anglophile in Rock’n’Roll.

What the film-maker in Minsk told me was this: “The fact that you can call your prime minister a liar and a criminal is not [an attack on] his virtue, it is your virtue.” The article that I subsequently wrote about Belarus was published almost on the very day that Walter Wolfgang, an 82-year-old Labour party member, was forcibly ejected from the party conference for heckling the foreign secretary. I received a gleeful postcard from Harold Pinter.


Every year the Serpentine Museum, tucked into Kensington Park in such a way that I only ever manage to find it by wandering with careful aimlessness about the gardens until it suddenly appears before me (I like to think of it in fairy tale terms), erects a temporary pavillion designed by one of the world's foremost architects and then, well, they serve tea in it. I always enjoy visiting, when I can. This year, Frank Gehry has been tapped for the project, and he has created a model which looks like a freshman year woodshop project gone terribly wrong. So terribly wrong that not even a concerted effort to put it down using a nail gun could overcome the foul beast. (Click on the link for a picture, and scroll through for shots of previous years' pavillions, including one which inflated and deflated throughout the day.) It looks like it will be very interesting indeed; I can't wait to sip a drink primly in it.


I have made NO pleasure-reading progress lately. Boo to me. Blame the minotaurs with whom I am doing battle at the heart of my labyrinths of March and Joyce Madness. So my short term reading list remains:
  1. Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes
  2. To Hate Like This is to Be Happy Forever by Will Blythe
  3. Arlington Park by Rachel Cusk
  4. Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
  5. The Ecstasy of Rita Joe by George Ryga
  6. The New York Trilogy by Paul Auster
  7. Ulysses by James Joyce

March Madness, MetaClooney and Mt. TBR

So I am happy as a clam amidst all this March Madness and Don Quixote-reading. A few notes on assorted oddities:


Avant-garde and physical theatre companies in the UK are now turning to children's theatre. And I really mean children - my favorite of the projects listed is the one for tots with the emerging ability to walk but not (yet) the ability to speak:

The younger the audience gets, the more focused the shows have to be. Oogly Boogly's audience has a window of six months. If you're younger than a year or older than 18 months, you'll be either insufficiently mobile or too good at talking. "That age group has the most exciting thing in the world to do, which is to try walking," says Manley. "It's hard to sit them down when they want to do this thing. Oogly Boogly [the "play"] works specifically with that age group because of that."

Try to present the same group with a piece of slapstick, however, and they're more likely to be distressed than amused, having yet to see the funny side in falling down. Rearrange the furniture in the nursery's lunch room, as Starcatchers recently did, and you risk upsetting your audience. But show them a never-ending thread, as Manley does in My House [a work by another company], and they find it hilarious. "I suppose it's something to do with cause and effect, where something doesn't behave in the way they expect it to," he says, a tad bemused.

Indeed, these are "plays" in more than one sense of the word, and I can't say I am any less fascinated by them than the children are. After all, who in the world is more avant-garde, more capable of seeing the world outside the boundaries of learned convention, than toddlers?


It may be that the Metropolitan Opera is cursed: they are now working with their fourth Tristan in a single production (three understudies had to be called in, in sequence, because of medical issues) and their second Isolde. Is it possible that Tristan and Isolde is to opera what the Scottish play (as theatre practitioners superstitiously call the cursed Macbeth) is to unsung drama?


I am always fascinated by tales of what it is like to be a judge for a literary award, and have been since I read a tale (I don't remember where, alas) from one judge about how her life was dominated by the prize: she would come home after work (as a journalistic editor- not a time consuming job at all, no) to read a whole novel every day, and on weekends she would read three a day. How can anyone read that quickly? Where do I acquire that skill?

So I am pleased that tales about judging these prizes (see here for the Booker experience, and here for the PEN/Faulkner) are coming out of the woodwork nowadays.


There is really only one word for this Esquire article by A.J. Jacobs: MetaClooney. Jacobs takes George Clooney on a tour of his own celebrity internet presence: Wikipedia entry, gossip sites, and all.


I wanted to set out my short term reading list, with the idea that it might be easier to make progress by focusing on the near at hand, rather than the vastness of Mt. TBR in its entirety:
  1. Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes
  2. To Hate Like This is to Be Happy Forever by Will Blythe
  3. Arlington Park by Rachel Cusk
  4. Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
  5. The Ecstasy of Rita Joe by George Ryga
  6. The New York Trilogy by Paul Auster

13) "The Hothouse" by Harold Pinter

An asylum drama that almost forgets to populate its world with patients, from one of Britain's preeminent playwrights. Written at the very beginning of Pinter's career, and then shelved until he decided to stage it virtually unchanged two decades later, this play partakes in the long tradition of linking the structures of institutionalized mental health treatment with the conventions of farce. Apart from some looming, haunted-house presences, we see nothing of the patients, and the drama dwells instead on the ludicrous, power-mad, and barely sane conversational struggles of the "rest home's" staff. This is careerism as torture.

The Hothouse
Harold Pinter
written 1958, first staged 1980
March 4, 2008

[I am a bit behind on my reviewing, so I am hoping to catch up with a series of abbreviated reviews, of which this is the first.]

Once Upon a Time... the Second!

Hurrah! Carl has revived the Once Upon a Time Challenge for a second go. I love a good annual challenge; it lends such a sense of stability to my reading life. This is why I am thinking of reviving the Unread Authors Challenge for a second go round later in the summer. At any rate, last year I had a rare challenge success with the Once Upon a Time Challenge, combining the fun with the virtuous to read Grendel, The Golden Ass, Something Rotten, Morphology of the Folktale, and A Wizard of Earthsea. All were delightful and rich with new knowledge, and I am now eager to plunge back in to my mountain of fantasy-tinged unread books.

To see the rules, or join the challenge, go to Carl's site. Here they are in brief:

There are three quests you can follow in your journey through the four relevant genres of fantasy, folklore, fairy tales, and mythology.

  • Quest 1: Read at least 5 books that fit somewhere within the Once Upon a Time II criteria. They might all be fantasy, or folklore, or fairy tales, or mythology…or your five books might be a combination from the four genres.
  • Quest 2: Read at least one book from each of the four categories. In this quest you will be reading 4 books total: one fantasy, one folklore, one fairy tale, and one mythology.
  • Quest 3: Fulfill the requirements for Quest the First or Quest the Second AND top it off with a June reading of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
The challenge runs from March 21, 2008 to June 20, 2008.

This year I am again going for Quest 1. Here is a short list of five, with a few alternates thrown in:
  1. Ovid Metamorphoses
  2. Octavia Butler Parable of the Talents
  3. Ursula K. Le Guin The Left Hand of Darkness
  4. Joseph Campbell The Hero with a Thousand Faces
  5. Susanna Clarke The Ladies of Grace Adieu
Alternates/Extra Credit:
  • Titus Groan by Mervyn Peake
  • Inkheart by Cornelia Funke
  • A Sudden, Wild Magic by Diana Wynn Jones
  • Perdido Street Station by China Mieville
  • The Complete Greek Tragedies: Sophocles II (Ajax, The Women of Trachis, Electra & Philoctetes)
I like to combine a little bit of classic(al) literature, a little bit of academic study, a little bit of self-defined genre fiction, and a little bit of mainstream borrowing of fantasy's trappings. I can barely wait till it begins!

More miscellany

What other news? I have just started an intriguing tale of the London suburbs that LibraryThing sent me as part of the Early Reviewers program (I fell behind in reviewing these a bit during the dissertation-finishing craze, so I am now making them top reading priority): Rachel Cusk's Arlington Park. So far the characters seem deeply sad in their utter lack of redeeming features and painfully accurate humanity. I am busily preparing to teach the second half of Don Quixote when I return from Spring Break, which presents a veritable mountain of reading for the next few days.

D and I have been watching Dexter digitally - it's amazing how much of the day can be frittered away with unlimited digital movies from Netflix, when one has access to a PC rather than an ineligible spinster of a Mac. Michael C. Hall is quite brilliant in it, as he was in Six Feet Under, but the rest of the cast often seems strained and under-rehearsed (or too broadly conceived to begin with). The opening credits are as terrifying a piece of mundanity as has ever been produced by the human mind (my friend C warned me about their creepy genius, but I still wasn't adequately prepared). In fact, it is this play between banal monstrosity and serial killer abnormality that is the show's greatest strength. Although it is (famously) about a sociopathic serial killer who works for the Miami cops as a blood spatter specialist and only kills other murderers who have eluded more conventional justice, Dexter (for all his inability to *feel* as a human should) is no more numbed and insensitive to the crimes they investigate than any other character in this fictional force. All of them have, in one way or another, dulled their humanity in the face of ambition, distraction, or (at the very least) the deadening scraping of repeated horror.

Other bitlets of interest:

  • In America, Mondays are theatrical "dark days," but in Britain, where they have the same standard M-F workweek, theatres are dark on Sunday. Now the National Theatre is following patron demand and moving to stage Sunday performances as well.
  • Are prizes that limit submissions by the gender of the artist (like the Orange Prize for Literature) inherently sexist? I am sorry to admit I hadn't really given it any thought, despite the large part of each day I devote to feminist rants against the gender-machinations of pop culture (a ritual that I perversely feel absolves me of guilt for addictedly consuming said culture). I was intrigued to learn that a number of prominent female authors refuse to allow their publishers to submit their novels for the Orange Prize, on feminist grounds. Food for thought, certainly.
  • I have also been catching up on my blog-reading (a monumental task), and have decided to join the Sunday Salon. I'm absurdly excited about the opportunity to devote time every Sunday to guilt-free pleasure reading and blogging. I won't be able to participate this Sunday, because I will be traveling back to the East Coast, but I hope to start the following weekend.

A Miscellany of Updates

Last night D took me out to Osteria Mozza in LA for a delightful dinner in celebration of finishing my dissertation (fingers crossed that it actually gets accepted). Could I have been any happier than when I saw that this restaurant offered no fewer than FIVE varieties of burrata (mozzarella that has been mixed with heavy cream midway through the cheesemaking process)? I could not. I briefly considered ordering all five variations on my new gastronomical beloved before I finally agreed to have merely one (it is a sign of the depth of my love for D that I even gave him half, without growling possessively at him), as well as a pasta course (the most roll-your-eyes-back-in-your-head delicate and delicious goat cheese ravioli) and a steak in a balsamic sauce. As we were finishing our main courses, I remarked that I was getting moderately full. D replied: "I don't know: if you saw a bucket of burrata I don't think you would pass it by." I closed my eyes: "Are there any words in the English language more beautiful," I asked him, "than 'bucket of burrata'?". (This was not the first time this week that I had eaten burrata, I blush to admit. I had a really excellent dish of my dairy darling at a dissertation-celebrating meal at Obelisk in DC with my parents. God, it was good.)

But then I woke up this morning to more rejections from jobs I had applied for, which, truth be told, made me too depressed to get out of bed. (There is an important lesson here: don't check email in bed.) I can't even describe how brutal the academic job search has been emotionally. Best not to dwell on it, I guess. So I finally wrenched myself out of bed, cleaned the kitchen, and headed out for the farmer's market, where I bought strawberries, some very tasty looking asparagus, and the world's most expensive tomato.

Now it is time for a concerted dwelling on the positive. The goodness of having my dissertation finished (PLEASE let it pass, ye gods of higher education) goes without saying, but a more immediate, if no less anxiety-inducing, source of happiness is the fact that UNC is the number one seed in the nation in the NCAA tournament. Go Heels! Oh, college basketball, what a balm you are for my life's woes. I give you, just as a taste of the delights of this season, the game winning shot that Tyler Hansbrough tossed off against Virginia Tech in the ACC Championship, and (even more delightful) the goofy, loose-limbed dance of joy he (normally utterly taciturn in his concentration) did after watching it go in:

What's more, it emerges that UNC has the best academic record (measured by graduation rates) among its tourney-bound athletes of any of the #1 and #2 seeds, a considerably better showing than its posh nemesis, Duke. The story of the conflict between the two parts of the term "student-athlete" that this study tells is a grim one, but I feel proud of UNC for defying the national statistics. It is good to be able to feel positive about the pedagogical soundness of college sports (and about public education in general) even as I am donning elaborate UNC-themed outfits, enacting vast superstitious rituals to guarantee our continued sportive success, and yelling obscenities at the television and its representations of our foes.

Egging me on through this cathartic madness is Will Blythe's delightful account of his lifelong experience of the Duke-Carolina rivalry (he is a Tar Heel, not to worry), which was loaned to me by my kind and surprisingly open-minded Dookie friend. Here is one of many tales Blythe tells in To Hate Like This Is to Be Happy Forever, of the time when he had to interview Uma Thurman just after the season opener against Santa Clara, a game which seemed certain to be a Tar Heel blowout:

I was scanning the box score to the Santa Clara game when Thurman arrived. She was lovely, a long pink scarf draped around her swan's neck.

"This is unbelievable," I said.

Out on the West Coast, North Carolina had lost to Santa Clara, 77 to 66. I explained the shocking nature of the upset to Thurman, the way it had ripped a hole in my sense of normalcy, toyed with my expectations, screwed my sense that the world would deliver justice and satisfaction. [...]

Thurman was very kind and tried to keep my spirits up. She was going through some hard times herself, like the tag end of her marriage to Ethan Hawke, which I had to admit was painful, having myself gone through the dissolution of a long matrimony. On the other hand, that was just life. Theoretically, you could always get another spouse. This was basketball. You couldn't get another season with Sean May, Marvin Williams, and Rashad McCants on the same team. No way.

"I'm so sorry," Thurman said.
"Let's not talk about it," I said.
"It might make you feel better," she said.
"You don't believe that," I said.
"Not really."
"How's your love life?"
"Let's not talk about it." (20-21)
I have just reached the part in which Blythe, who has written for the New Yorker and the New York Times Book Review as well as Rolling Stone, uses the work of 19th century English essayist William Hazlitt on hatred to illuminate his feelings for Duke. Yes, indeed. It was a good, if, mmm, multifaceted education we got at Carolina.

The Book Awards Reading Challenge: A New Strategy

As I was joining new challenges in the dawn of the post-dissertation period, it occurred to me (with some degree of shock) that I still have a challenge open: the Book Awards Challenge, which lasts a full year, and which has about three and a half months left in it. I had promised to read 12 books in that year, which means that I have {blush} ten books to read in the next three and a half months. Looking back at my list, I realize it was filled with dense and intimidating chunksters (as well as books that would have qualified for my 2007 Year of Australian reading, which is now over). It sounded like it was time for a reconception of my challenge goals, if I was even to have a small hope of finishing the challenge (or making a valiant attempt at it).
So here is a rather short list of the two books I have already read:

  1. Tehanu by Ursula K. Le Guin [Nebula]
  2. Citizen Vince by Jess Walter [Edgar]

And here is a new list of 15 possibilities from which I hope to draw my final ten challenge books:
  • Small Island by Andrea Levy [Orange, Costa/Whitbread, Commonwealth]
  • Hyperion by Dan Simmons [Hugo]
  • The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields [Pulitzer, NBCC, Governor General's]
  • Gilead by Marilynne Robinson [NBCC, Pulitzer]
  • Parable of the Talents by Octavia Butler [Nebula]
  • March by Geraldine Brooks [Pulitzer]
  • Neuromancer by William Gibson [Nebula, Hugo]
  • The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard [NBA, Miles Franklin]
  • The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter [Pulitzer, NBA]
  • Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Carey [Booker, Miles Franklin]
  • Disgrace by J. M. Coetzee [Booker, Commonwealth]
  • Anil's Ghost by Michael Ondaatje [Governer General's, Giller]
  • The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. LeGuin [Hugo, Nebula]
  • Ship Fever by Andrea Barrett [NBA]
  • Them by Joyce Carol Oates [NBA]
  • Mao II by Don DeLillo [PEN/Faulkner]
You can find the blog for the challenge here.

Notable Books Challenge (2008)

The tedious fullness of my schedule this year has prevented me from participating as I should in the Notable Books Blog, Wendy's successor to the 2007 New York Times Notable Books Challenge (drawn from the 2006 New York Times Notable Books list). Now, at long last, I am ready to leap back into the breach with a list for my own 2008 challenge. I enjoyed the New York Times list last year, so this year my goal will be to read (or more accurately, to have read, since some of these books I read in their actual year of publication) 12 books from the 2007 list. Here they are:

  1. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz
  2. Brother, I'm Dying by Edwidge Danticat
  3. On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan [READ]
  4. The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolano
  5. Remainder by Tom McCarthy
  6. The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid
  7. The View from Castle Rock by Alice Munro
  8. What is the What by Dave Eggers
  9. Agent Zigzag by Ben Macintyre
  10. Edith Wharton by Hermione Lee
  11. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling [READ, click for my review]
  12. The Gathering by Anne Enright
To visit the blog, see the very supportive rules for participating in it, or to join, go to the Notable Books Blog.

The Non-Fiction Five Challenge: A Second Attempt

Last year I participated in the wonderful Non-Fiction Five Challenge, because I truly do delight in non-fiction, which doesn't make enough appearances in the annals of my pleasure reading. Ultimately, I only made it through 3 of the 5 required books, and I am not totally convinced I read most of those within the time scheme of the challenge. Boo to me.

Well, this year I, unabashed, make another attempt at Joy's Challenge. Here are the rules:

  1. Read 5 non-fiction books during the months of May - September, 2008 (please link your reviews at Thoughts of Joy)
  2. Read at least one non-fiction book that is different from your other choices (i.e.: 4 memoirs and 1 self-help)
You can sign up for the challenge, see the list of participants, or read all about it here.

For me, a number of books will be reappearing from last year's list. Like last year, I will have a list of five, with six alternates, some of which may change over the course of the challenge:

    1. 1599: A Year in the Life of Shakespeare by James Shapiro
    2. This Boy's Life by Tobias Wolff
    3. Freakonomics by Steven D. Levitt
    4. Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser
    5. A Brief History of the Caribbean by Jan Rogozinski
Extra Credit:
    1. Random Family by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc
    2. The Trojan War: A New History by Barry Strauss
    3. The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion
    4. The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals by Michael Pollan
    5. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson
    6. Complications: A Surgeon's Notes on an Imperfect Science by Atul Gawande
Since the start of the challenge is still a way off, I won't be able to include a book I just finished and hope to review soon, The Translator by Daoud Hari. Nor will I include a truly gripping account of the North Carolina/Duke basketball rivalry that I am currently reading while I watch UNC progress to the ACC championship (Go Heels!): To Hate Like This Is to Be Happy Forever by Will Blythe. Also unincluded will be (probably) my next non-fiction venture, the library's copy of a biography of Cary Grant that has been sitting on my shelf for months. I am now experiencing a rampant desire to read all the books I have named in this post simultaneously. Best just to back away and return to the many reading projects I already have underway, at least until May.

The Pub (2008) Challenge

Now that the dissertation is in (this accounts for my recent small bout of quietness - more on this soon, I hope), it is challenge-joining time. I am trying to be more moderate this year, and to make my way through as much of Mt. TBR as possible (whom did I pick up that designation for my unread book pile from? I can't remember.).

So, Challenge #1: The Pub (2008) Challenge. Its rules:

  1. Read a minimum of 8 books published in 2008. (Library books are acceptable!)
  2. No children’s/YA titles allowed, since we’re at the ‘pub.’
  3. At least 4 titles must be fiction.
  4. Crossovers with other challenges are allowed.
  5. Titles may be changed at any time.
The link above will take you to the challenge's site, where you can join, see a list of participants, or find collections of reviews.

It is hard to form a list for this challenge, since many of the books I will hopefully include on it haven't yet been released and haven't come to my attention. Nonetheless, here are a couple I hope to start out with:
          • The Translator: A Tribesman's Memoir of Darfur by Daoud Hari (March 2008)
          • The Story of Forgetting by Stefan Merril Block (April 2008)
In fact, I have already read the first of these, although I haven't had a chance to blog it yet (soon, I hope!). Both are courtesy of LibraryThing's Early Reviewers program.

20 minutes of Shame and the Knight of the Woeful Countenance

(I wrote the original version of this post yesterday, conscientiously using Word in case Blogger proved tricksy as it has with past drafts. Alas, my version of Word was suddenly possessed by a demon of deletion, which crashed the program just as I attempted to save my post. So I took a day to mourn its loss before trying again.)

I have just been bobbing along of late, trying to accomplish a plethora of irritating tasks (you know, minor ones, like submitting the final, revised copy of my dissertation, and trying to get a job). I have been devoting most of my time to preparing Don Quixote for class, which is equal parts delight and weight-lifting (both intellectual and physical), but I have also been trying to put my toe back in the water of blogging, blog-reading, actual reading, and movie-watching, after many months of starvation in all of those activities. Last night I finished off both The Bitter Tea of General Yen and Ingmar Bergman’s Shame while trying to get to sleep, and enjoyed them both tremendously. I will admit that my schedule is still crazy enough that I am forced to watch films episodically, rewarding myself for having completed fixed work goals with a short segment of film. This is hardly an ideal way to watch a movie, but it has created a rather odd feature in my work planning over the last several days: my To Do list has been dotted regularly with entries that read “20 minutes of Shame.”

So here are a few more notes before I have to return to the Knight of the Woeful Countenance.


Polaroid has announced that it will stop producing film, and Geoff Dyer writes a wonderful essay that reflects on the peculiarities of a form that is photographic but not endlessly reproducible - a photograph for which there can be only one copy in existence, and where you can be almost certain that every subject performed the exact same ritual mere moments after it was taken (flap flap flap – [peer peer] – “not ready yet” – flap flap flap). How often can you suppose such unity of experience for the subjects of any other art form?


Iliana at Bookgirl’s Nightstand was seeking suggestions for literary podcasts to listen to on her iPod, and this led me down the long procrastinatory lane of wondering which podcasts on a range of different subjects I would deem my favorites at the moment. (I am, you see, a mad podcast fiend. If there were a podcast den where people did nothing all day but listen to talk radio and its offspring on their iPods, I would be there. Actually, my podcast addiction mostly rears its ugly head when I am doing what I might call transitional tasks that preclude reading, like doing the dishes or walking to work.)

So, a list. What are my favorite podcasts right now?
1) On film: Filmspotting
2) On food: KCRW's Good Food (thanks for recommending this one, R!)
3) On poetry: alt.NPR: Poetry Off the Shelf
4) On journalism/media issues: On the Media
5) On literature/cultural events: Start the Week with Andrew Marr
6) On life: This American Life.

Does anyone else have a favorite podcast they would like to share with me, thus becoming an enabler of my rampant addiction?


Last, but not least, a delightful twist of form - a short story in footnotes by Gregory Norminton. I think I will put his novel Serious Things on my “to acquire” list.

Pot-bellied piglets and artistic access

A wee life update before moving on to more entertaining subjects: I found out this week that the job I really wanted (oh, it would have been perfect both professionally and personally) had been given to someone else. Someone else who had accepted the offer. So now I am down in the dumps. It seems that I will certainly be on the soul-destroying academic job market AGAIN next year, even if I get one of the very exciting short-term positions (Visiting Professorships and post-doctoral fellowships) that I have applied for.

And that may be why it made me so absurdly happy, as I was walking through Old Campus, to see a pot-bellied piglet (does the English language contain a more satisfying phrase than that?) wandering free, snuffling amongst the fallen acorns, and running up to people to wrinkle his expressive little snout at them communicatively. (Not to worry, this owner was supervising the piglet’s social life approvingly from nearby.) Perhaps I am just pet-starved (the second, and last surviving, of my two childhood pets died recently), but this was cuteness pigified. (The picture above is of one variety of domesticated pig, a kunekune sow and piglet.) So, of course I had to investigate the nature of pot-bellied pigs, and I discovered a site that assures me they are house-trainable and can be quite affectionate, but that “piglets can be quite aloof or fearful at first.” Let me just say that the piglet I just saw was at the opposite end of the spectrum from “aloof.” He was downright flirtatious and investigative!


In other news, Carrie Frye is right, Garfield minus Garfield is a font of delightful oddity. I wonder what other icons of comics kitsch could be transformed into avant garde koans by removing a character?


My favorite new word (learned from a New Yorker article called “Numbers Guy” by Jim Holt in the March 3 issue) is “numerate,” which I can only assume is a numerical equivalent for “literate,” that is “able to communicate numerical concepts symbolically.” Great word, although I can’t quite see how I am going to work it into my everyday conversation.


Natasha Tripney blogs about the problem of balancing accessibility and innovative uses of space in the theatre. Should experimentations with unconventional theatrical spaces (particularly those that require the audience to move through the space with the action) be confined by considerations of how mobile or comfortable their spectators will be? This seems to me something that individual theatre groups are going to have to balance the ethics of themselves. One of the characteristics of theatre is the impossibility of any individual viewer grasping it in its entirety, since each performance is different and (especially in these sorts of innovative environmental stagings) each vantage point is distinct. Perhaps, then, rather than limiting what can be accomplished with theatrical space to what can be made universally accessible, the solution is to reject the very notion of universal accessibility, and deny all your viewers (even and perhaps especially the most mobile ones) some portion of the show, playing up both its ephemerality and the unique but equally valid experience of each viewer. Just a thought.

While I’m on an ethical tangent: LibraryThing’s discussion boards have played host to many an argument about the ethics of buying and trading used books in a cultural economy that is already somewhat… financially harsh for authors. I have sympathy for this point of view, although I would temper it by saying that 1) as with teaching, there are more than just financial incentives for artistic creation, and the greater accessibility to art that libraries, used bookstores, book-trading sites, museums, etc. provide speaks to the other rewards this creation can reap, and 2) the circulation of used books contributes mightily to economies of prestige and esteem that, in the long term, result in higher book sales for authors. I have only anecdotal evidence for the latter, but I will say that there is many an author I would never have tried (because I don’t have an infinite budget for book-buying) if I hadn’t acquired a used book, but whose work I later bought new either for myself or for friends.

At any rate, Bookmooch has been pondering how it, as a book-trading community, can support authors financially, and it is conducting an “Experiment in Generosity." This experiment involves giving authors the opportunity to list books that are out of print, and print them on demand even as they are mooched. If the moocher likes the book, s/he would then make a donation to the author through PayPal (larger if s/he wanted to keep the book, smaller if s/he wanted to pass it on to other potential donors). Bookmooch is interested in hearing what you think about this new way of thinking about the economics of literary creation (click on the link above to tell them), and I would be too. Do you think authors could break even this way? It would certainly be good for readers if more out-of-print books could be made available this way.

Watched (on screen) in 2008 (Catching up)

An ongoing list of films and DVDs I watched this year (the new entries are #4-6):

  1. Winter Light [The Communicants] (1962, directed by Ingmar Bergman)
    • As my life has gotten steadily busier and more distressing I have found Ingmar Bergman a perplexing source of solace. This is the fifth or sixth I have watched recently, and I must admit that I have developed a quite a crush on Gunnar Björnstrand. So... this film, in which he plays a existentially despairing pastor incapable of giving comfort to his flock or returning the love of his mistress, was an all-too-real piece of heartbreak. It opens with a long, impressive scene lifted uninterruptedly from a Lutheran service, and as Björnstrand's minister moves anxiously about the church painted demons leer, mourning, over his shoulder from the hallowed walls. [January 3, 2008 ****]
  2. Suddenly, Last Summer (1959, directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz)
    • The short play by Tennessee Williams that lurks behind this film is a well nigh perfectly crafted piece of claustrophobic storytelling, in which the tales crafted by a dead man's domineering mother and possibly-mad cousin are simultaneously deeply convincing and lushly, impossibly heightened in their affect. Mankiewicz's film opens well, but as it progresses much of this narrative intensity and literary vividness (a vividness which, like the bright, precise colors of a high definition tv, seems more real than real) is dispersed by changing scenes (unity of place served Williams *very* well in the original, if I remember correctly) or displaced by melodrama, a poor substitute. In part the film declines in strength because Katherine Hepburn (in one of her best performances - the unnerving power of the severe Violet Venable suits her talents better than any screwball role ever did), who dominates the film's opening, increasingly takes a back seat to the therapeutic relationship between her careworn niece and the doctor Mrs. Venable has called in to lobotomize the girl. This is also the case in the play (and to great effect), but unfortunately for the film both the doctor (Montgomery Clift, still shattered from his traumatizing car accident) and the questionably sane Catherine Holly (Elizabeth Taylor, who demonstrates an enraging lack of control over her voice) turn in really poor performances. If I remember the play properly, the chilling ending is also thrown over in the film for a more maudlin choice. Ah well - it is all almost redeemed by the sight of Katherine Hepburn descending slowly like a god composed entirely of cheekbones into her living room in a contraption that more closely resembles a wrought-iron throne than an elevator. [Saturday, January 5, 2008 ***]
  3. The Silence (1963, dir. Ingmar Bergman)
    • Bergman does Antonioni, with all the revisions to that bleak and glossy worldview (a rather allegorical outlook, for instance) that one might expect. Two sisters (one cerebral, put-upon, and dying and one fleshly, spontaneous and vicious) and their wide-eyed innocent of a child (it is hard to say that one or the other is more maternal to him) prowl desperately about a desolate hotel in a country that in the midst of some unspoken civil unrest. The "silence" is famously a spiritual one, but what is fascinating is how little actual silence there is in the film, at first on the level of lack of noise (the world of The Silence is filled to brimming with the claustrophobic pressures of diegetic noise - clocks ticking lives away, crowds shuffling oppressedly, radios playing tinny Bach), and then later on the level of lack of conversation. The sisters delight in their linguistic isolation from the people of the hotel and town: without the local language their central characteristics are played up through interpersonal contact - intellectual attempts at connection through music or the acquisition of individual words in the new language for one sister, and a more bodily form of communication for the other. This is by far the bleakest Bergman film I have seen, and although it was interesting and beautiful, it was also the least enjoyable and most schematic. [Sunday, February 3, 2008 ***1/2]
  4. Paisan (1946, dir. Roberto Rossellini)
    • It took me months of watching to get through this relatively short set of Italian neo-realist films. Paisan, or Paisa, is a series of six linked short pieces about interactions between the American, British and German forces and civilians in Italy in the latter stages of WWII. They often raise interesting situations (like that of a black GI faced first with the racism and trickery of the Italian street urchins he comes into contact with, and then with their brutal poverty), but like many overworked short stories, they strive too hard for a poignant, dramatic ending or set-piece for which there hasn't been a sufficiently rich narrative foundation. [Feb 10, 2008 ***]
  5. The Amazing Mrs. Pritchard (2007, mini-series)
    • I had heard that this series (about a previously apolitical woman who stages a surprisingly successful run for the Prime Ministry of Britain on a common-sense and transparency platform) was a bit cheesy, but I was gamely enjoying it until the abrupt and undercutting ending. All this build-up of plot-lines for naught! We were just left hanging, as if they had intended a much longer series than they had been able to afford to make. (Is this in fact what happened?) I felt mocked and derided. (Yes, I take my television endings very seriously.) [Feb 13, 2008 **]
  6. Vantage Point (2008, dir. Pete Travis)
    • When I saw the trailer for this thriller in which a terrorist act is viewed from eight different "vantage points" I was filled with a desire to see it, not least because it is extremely well cast (also, I can love a good thriller with the best of them). However, it turns out that this is one of those films which has really found its highest form of expression in the trailer genre. Excruciatingly badly written, it was also remarkably short for its fragmented structure (I know this smacks of "The food was terrible and there wasn't enough of it," but in this case the brevity of each "vantage point" narrative was the source of a lot of the film's weakness). The result: we ended up seeing the same horrific acts over and over until we were numbed and even a little irritated by them (did they just want to get the most mileage out of expensive special effects?), but major characters played by famous actors were given little to no back story. Ugh. Excruciating. Half a star for a good cast, who were almost universally wooden and under-rehearsed. [Feb 28, 2008 *1/2]
  7. What will be next? Who can say?